Out of the gloom Salman Rushdie floats into view, his familiar face with short beard and glasses hovering on screen in front of a library that should win any competition for the most impressive Zoom bookshelf backdrop.
From his New York apartment he is here to share three things: he has made a deal to publish his next work of fiction as a serialised novella on Substack; he intends to fulfil a long held, once thwarted desire to be a film critic; and he still doesn’t have the courage to write poetry.
“I got very attracted to the idea recently, in this strange year and a half, of trying out things I’ve never done before,” he says.
“It’s to do with this enforced condition we’ve all been in of being pushed inwards … I published this book of essays [which was] the 20th book and I’m already writing the 21st book, which is a novel. I just thought: do something else. And exactly the moment I was thinking that this project cropped up.”
“This project” is Substack and came about after the newsletter platform wrote to Rushdie’s literary agent, Andrew Wylie, who asked him if it was something he wanted to do.
“I’ve been looking at [Keret’s] Substack and it’s so witty and enjoyable, and he’s clearly having a wonderful time doing it, I thought, ‘maybe I could do that’.”
Substack provides a platform for readers to subscribe to individual writers, whose posts are sent to your inbox or can be read online. Writers often provide a mix of paid and free content, which is what Rushdie plans to do.
“I’m going to kind of make it up as I go along, but I have some starting points,” he says. Aside from the novella, it will feature short stories, literary gossip (“as long as its not defamatory”) and writing about books – and film.
“I always wanted to write about movies. There was one moment 100 years ago, when somebody at the New Yorker was taking paternity leave and I was asked if I’d like to step in for a couple of months to be their film critic. I thought that was a wonderful idea and I said, ‘yes, please’. Then the critic in question ended up not taking the paternity leave so I got fired before I started.”
Often locked inside during the pandemic, Rushdie set himself a program to rewatch the films that made him fall in love with movies when he was young – “the French New Wave, the Italian New Wave, all the other great films of that period of the 60s and 70s”.
“It was very interesting to see what, in my view, held up and what did not.”
His novella, titled The Seventh Wave, is also linked to film. The 60,000 word text, which has now been slashed to 35,000 words, is about a film director and an actor slash muse written in the style of New Wave cinema, with “disjunctions and crash cuts and gangsters”.
“The infallible test of anything I write is embarrassment,” Rushdie says. “If I’m embarrassed to show it to you, then it’s not ready.
“There comes a point where I’m not embarrassed to show it and actually I’m kind of eager to show it. After the complete rethinking of this text – compressing, condensing, cutting, changing the narrative line somewhat – now I like it.”
It will be a digital experiment in serialising fiction (“the way [it] used to be published, right at the beginning”) with new sections coming out approximately once a week over the course of about a year, he says.
A surprising number of the classics were originally serialised: Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers is the best known example, but there is also Madame Bovary, War and Peace, and Heart of Darkness. Rushdie references the experience of Samuel Richardson, who serialised his novel Clarissa in 1748.
“His readers expected that she would, in the end, fall in love with the guy. But then he rapes her. Richardson had quite a lot of correspondence from readers who said that, in spite of that terrible act, they still wanted what they would consider to be a happy ending – and he very determinedly would not give it to them.
“I’ve never had that before, to be publishing something where people can say things about it while it’s going on.”
Is he open to the idea of feedback from readers shaping the story?
“It would have to be a very good suggestion,” he says. “But it does sometimes happen that somebody says something about a character, which you hadn’t thought about when you were writing it … If somebody were to say, for instance, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, I want to hear a bit more about that’, then maybe I’ll give them a bit more about that.”
Rushdie says he doesn’t want to use Substack as a political platform (“I think what happens is that takes over and obliterates everything else”), but he acknowledges that events (“eg. Afghanistan”) might force him to say something.
Despite his intentions, the move to Substack could see Rushdie wading into a politically charged fight over the moderation of tech platforms. The Trump era and now Covid have poured rocket fuel on to questions about gate-keeping, misinformation and which voices get to be heard, that have been simmering for the best past of a decade.
After becoming the target of a fatwa issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 over his novel The Satanic Verses, freedom of speech has been central to Rushdie’s public identity.
“The question about which voices get to speak … is a very important [one],” he says. “In publishing … there was a real problem about which voices got to speak, and I’m not saying that’s gone away, but it’s changing. Here [in the US] there’s a lot more space for writers of colour than there used to be, both in publishing books and in the critical sphere.
“And potentially something like this, with its lack of gatekeepers, could also enable a more diverse set of voices … If you want a Substack you can start one, you know, you don’t have to be invited.
“But I don’t want to be their cheerleader,” he says. “It was interesting for me to have a go with this and all I’ve done is it make a 12-month commitment. A year from now, I’m going to see where we stand, and I’ll either go on with it, or I won’t.”
What he is interested in for now is engaging in a dialogue with readers. In the first post on his Substack, which is called Salman’s Sea of Stories, Rushdie writes poetically about how stories give birth to other stories, using as an example two stories in his own life which sparked the idea for his best of the Booker prize-winning novel Midnight’s Children.
“Human beings have always been storytellers and you use that as a way of understanding who you are, and who the people around you are, and what’s going on,” he says. “If I look back, which I don’t very often, the books do seem to be like reports from different stages of my consciousness. I think most of us do that – we all tell each other stories all the time.”
Rushdie says Twitter has enabled him to maintain a connection with his country of birth due to a disproportionately large number of his 1.1m followers being Indian.
“It does become a way for me, sitting in New York, to have a conversation with people across India as if I was there – and it actually sometimes makes me feel that I am there, you know, because I’m in their living room on their computer, and they’re online.”
Through that community Rushdie, who has remained engaged both with India’s political situation and its suffering amid Covid, got involved in campaigns to fundraise money to provide oxygen cylinders and the like.
He is hoping that Substack “might allow a slightly more complex connection” and give him the space to talk about things that “are just too big to discuss in tweets”.
“I think that new technology always makes possible new art forms, and I think literature has not found its new form in this digital age … Whatever the new thing is that’s going to arise out of this new world, I don’t think we’ve seen it yet.
“I have a very strong suspicion, it is not going to be somebody of my age who comes up with it.”
Rushdie is quite laissez-faire about where this new project will take him.
“I’m just diving in here and que sera sera, you know. It will either turn out to be something wonderful and enjoyable, or it won’t.”
But he also realises that by taking his fiction digital, he is taking a small step away from the beloved medium he has dedicated his life to.
“People have been talking about the death of the novel, almost since the birth of the novel … but the actual, old fashioned thing, the hardcopy book, is incredibly, mutinously alive. And here I am having another go, I guess, at killing it.”
‘AI tech can have negative, even catastrophic, effects if they are used without sufficient regard to how they affect people’s human rights.’
The UN’s human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called for a moratorium on the sale and use of artificial intelligence technology until safeguards are put in place to prevent potential human rights violations.
Bachelet made the appeal on Wednesday (15 September) to accompany a report released by the UN’s Human Rights Office, which analysed how AI systems affect people’s right to privacy. The violation of their privacy rights had knock-on impacts on other rights such as rights to health, education and freedom of movement, the report found.
“Artificial intelligence can be a force for good, helping societies overcome some of the great challenges of our times. But AI technologies can have negative, even catastrophic, effects if they are used without sufficient regard to how they affect people’s human rights,” Bachelet said.
“Artificial intelligence now reaches into almost every corner of our physical and mental lives and even emotional states,” Bachelet added.
The report was critical of justice systems which had made wrongful arrests because of flawed facial recognition tools. It appealed to countries to ban any AI tools which did not meet international human rights standards. A 2019 study from the UK found that 81pc of suspects flagged by the facial recognition technology used by London’s Metropolitan Police force were innocent.
Bachelet also highlighted the report’s concerns on the future use of data once it has been collected and stored, calling it “one of the most urgent human rights questions we face.”
The UN’s report echoes previous appeals made by European data protection regulators.
The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) and the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) called for a ban on facial recognition in public places in June. They urged EU lawmakers to consider banning the use of such technology in public spaces, after the European Commission released its proposed regulations on the matter.
The EU’s proposed regulations did not recommend an outright ban. The commission instead emphasised the importance of creating “trustworthy AI.”
This episode includes discussion of sex and pornography.
OnlyFans bills itself as a wide-ranging ‘subscription social network’ where content creators of any kind can charge their followers to view their output – but in reality its hugely successful business is largely based around sex. That emphasis only grew during the pandemic, with more and more users spending their free time online – and more people wondering about a new source of income. With the company valued at about $1bn (£720m), and celebrities like Cardi B and Bella Thorne signing up, it was hard to see it doing anything other than more of the same.
Then OnlyFans dropped a bombshell: it announced it would be barring sexually explicit content. Some observers accepted its claim that the move was forced by banks that were refusing to work with the platform in its current form, while others wondered if it was driven by a longer-term gamble that there was more money and security to be found in the mainstream. Either way, the sex workers who have built a following on the site and rely on it for income were up in arms.
Then the second bombshell came. OnlyFans announced that after securing assurances from its banking partners that it would be able to continue to operate, it had suspended its decision and would “continue to provide a home for all creators”. But many of those who use the site are suspicious that it still intends to pivot away from sexual content in the future. Meanwhile, there are many who have a more fundamental objection – claiming the website has inadequate safeguards for its users or to stop the publication of illegal content, and is part of a system that commodifies women’s bodies and plays a part in misogyny in online and offline spaces alike.
To unpick all of this, Nosheen Iqbal speaks to the Guardian’s UK technology editor, Alex Hern, who sets out the possible reasons for OnlyFans’ initial decision and subsequent reversal, as well as reflecting on what its success tells us about the future of internet business. We also hear from Bea Dux, a content creator on OnlyFans who is leaving the platform as a result of the saga. “We are constantly exploited for what we are able to bring to companies,” she says. “Time and time again sex workers will build a platform, and as soon as it’s big enough to bring in other people and celebrities, sex workers get kicked off.”
OnlyFans did not respond to a request for comment.
Read more from Alex Hern on OnlyFans here and here.
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Australia, the United States of America, and the United Kingdom have signed a new defence and technology-sharing pact.
Dubbed AUKUS, the headline item of the pact is assistance from the UK and US to help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines that are interoperable with their own fleets (but do not carry nuclear weapons). Australia’s Department of Defence Science and Technology argues [PDF] that subs “can shape or change the behaviour of other nations and their decision-making, which no other Australian Defence Force asset or combination of assets can do”.
The only credible regional threat Australia faces is China. Australia previously planned to build diesel-electric subs in conjunction with a French manufacturer – a contract that is about to be terminated without putting a boat in the water. Nuclear-powered boats can run submerged for longer and more quietly, and do not have to vent exhaust gases.
AUKUS is therefore further evidence that the US and UK are keen to contain China.
US President Joe Biden’s joint leaders statement that announced AUKUS explained that the pact will also include “further trilateral collaboration” that will initially “focus on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities.”
Just what those “additional undersea capabilities” might be was not explained.
Nor were details offered on promised “deeper integration of security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains.”
Australia, America, and the UK are already members of the Five Eyes security alliance that shares intelligence data (Canada and New Zealand are the others). Now they’re also building an interoperable submarine fleet and the tech to make them run.
China, meanwhile, maintains that it has only peaceful intentions. It points out it has not fired a shot in anger for decades (during which time the US and UK fought in, say, Iran and Afghanistan), and that actions like building bases on South China Sea reefs – using claims rejected [PDF] by The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in 2016 – are perfectly reasonable and pose a threat to no nation.
Officials of China’s Foreign Ministry are also fond of statements like the tweet below.
Any regional cooperation mechanism should follow the trend of peace&development and help promote trust&cooperation among countries. Forming closed&exclusive cliques targeting other countries runs counter to the trend of the times and the expectation of regional countries. pic.twitter.com/F8oMZq0bWB
China seems certain to find the formation of AUKUS an affront. The US and the UK may find also find it awkward, as Australian submarine manufacturing projects are infamous for blowing budgets and deadlines. They are also widely considered domestic exercises in propping up votes in manufacturing-centric seats – a goal only barely secondary to any foreign strategic considerations. ®